In his headquarters for the Swiss company Synthes, Peter Märkli has built one of the most astounding buildings of its era
Synthes’ new headquarters in the Swiss city of Solothurn is a very large building designed to accommodate the production of very small objects. The company is the world’s largest manufacturer of surgical implants to mend bone fractures. In the Solothurn building alone — it also maintains a base in the USA — it employs a workforce of more than 900.
The project represents the third large office building that its architect Peter Märkli has realised in the past decade, following many years in which his practice was focused almost exclusively on the design of houses and small apartment blocks. As with his other office buildings — commissioned by UBS and Novartis, and both in Basel — its design bears traces both of the American architecture of the post-war years and of a far longer European classical tradition. The stark, not to say brutal, clarity of its tectonic order might bring to mind Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Laboratories of 1965, but in judging the acceptability of his design’s exceptionally long primary facades, it was to Jacopo Sansovino’s Marciana Library in Venice that Märkli turned for a point of comparison — a building that has been with us for more than four centuries.
The centre of Solothurn is a compact and well-preserved baroque city, perhaps the most beautiful piece of urbanism of its era in Switzerland. It occupies a site on the north side of the River Aare from which it looks out to a 19th century railway station on the opposite bank. Disembarking here we follow the rail line for a couple of hundred metres before finding the Synthes building on a sliver of land framed between rail and river. There was a barracks here before, composed of buildings that divided the site laterally into yards and parade grounds, but all have been swept away save for a listed entrance block, which has been converted to offices as part of the scheme.
Perhaps the central achievement of Märkli’s truly extraordinary design lies in the impeccably consequential manner in which it develops from the scale of urban strategy to detail. This is an architecture predicated on one very bold decision: to configure the programme as a linear development, stretching 168m from one end of the site to the other. The move gives the project a positively palatial presence on the river. The sense is of a building looking beyond the perforate, small-scale urbanism of houses and factories that constitutes its immediate environment and forging instead relationships to the river, the old town and the encompassing Weissenstein Jura mountains.
The project does, however, also make a significant urban contribution at a local scale. While the client had requested that all parking be located below ground, Märkli’s siting opened the possibility of accommodating it in a full-width forecourt — a tree-planted square that might be publicly accessible and serve as an event space out of office hours. There is a level change of 3m from street to riverside, with the forecourt being set at the lower level.
Rather than simply negotiating that transition with a wall or embankment, the architect has introduced a single-storey building providing covered parking of an equivalent length to the main building. Humble as it is, this structure has a transformative effect on the whole ensemble, providing the retained barrack building with a plinth that allows it to communicate on more equal terms with its much larger neighbour. The contrast between them — fortified and provincial on the one hand, expansive and fundamentally universal in character on the other — is not untinged by absurdity but a dialogue of sorts has been established.
The new building’s emphatic massing has been translated into a no less purposeful internal plan. At either end there are entrances — the city-facing one at the west being the more public — each of which gives onto a staircase. The entrances are signalled by gigantic hooped glazing bars above the doors, and that very striking motif has also been put to use as a balustrade detail on the primary stair. In a building that may seem, on first impression, a dauntingly stern and rugged affair, the discovery of this brazenly decorative treatment proves disconcerting.
Exploring further, however, it becomes apparent that the relative pitch of architectural expression in different parts of the building has been judged very precisely. On the office floors, the fabric is expressed as nakedly as possible; in communal areas a local Jura limestone lining has been introduced; in public spaces decoration comes into play. Without slipping into bombast, a tangible sense of propriety is maintained throughout.
Few buildings realised in my lifetime present quite such a clear and radical vision
Each of the building’s four floors is configured around a passage — Märkli describes them as boulevards — that extends straight, and unobstructed by doors, between the stairs at either end. The boulevard on the ground has been shunted against the river facade to allow space for an auditorium, canteen and prototyping shop. Upstairs, they cut through the middle, with large and open expanses of office space and more compact and enclosed stair, kitchen and toilet cores alternating to either side.
In places, the work areas accommodate glazed enclosures to allow private meetings to be conducted, but the overriding impression is of a remarkable spatial continuity. In Synthes’ earlier accommodation, staff were divided across many floors. By rehousing them in what are effectively three colossal ateliers, the architect and his client have hoped to engender a less departmentally siloed work culture.
Despite its length, at 32m in width the building is by no means slim: workers might find themselves sitting at desks positioned as far as 13m away from the nearest window. However, Märkli has transformed what would ordinarily be an unacceptable condition into a highly attractive one by jacking up the floor-to-ceiling heights to a startling 4m in the offices and 5m on the ground floor. No suspended ceiling diminishes these monumental dimensions: on each floor we look up to the underside of the concrete slab and find every duct, cable tray and light fitting has been designed and precisely laid out by the architect.
Source: Caroline Palla
In support of the ambition to present the building’s structure nakedly, all windows extend from floor to underside of slab. Through these vast expanses of glass we discover forested foot-hills rising up from the river to fill our field of vision. It is in this encounter that we recognise the building in its essential form: as an instrument for setting man in relation to landscape. The vivid distinction maintained between the building’s structure and the means by which that structure is occupied leaves us in no doubt that pragmatic considerations are of secondary concern.
For all the windows’ size, Märkli concluded that if the building was to answer the scale of the landscape adequately, a still more gigantic ordering device was required: a full-height colonnade, extending down the length of both primary facades. Rolled out on 12m centres, the columns are of square section and faced in limestone. They are almost entirely without articulation, but at a point just above head height and again at the intersection with the roof, the cladding is interrupted by a precast-concrete element that the architect terms a “knot”. These are no more than small cubes, which protrude fractionally forward of the cladding, but they lend the columns an important visual emphasis. In effect, they are highly abstracted versions of the base and capital of a classical column.
The actual facade lies only a couple of metres behind the colonnade so the two layers are very directly juxtaposed. It comprises a grid of white precast concrete elements, the surfaces of which are finely grooved. The presence of another projecting “knot” at these elements’ intersection establishes a visual link to the columns, while also importantly ensuring that the facade’s horizontal elements give no appearance of bearing on the verticals. Any temptation to read the elevation as a trabeated composition of posts and beams is therefore frustrated. It is expressly a dressing of hung elements — a net, as it were, stretched taut.
The facade is laid out as a series of wide bays (corresponding to the office areas) interspersed by narrow recesses (corresponding to the cores) but the dimensions of neither bay nor recess are constant. The facades of a number of Märkli’s smaller projects are articulated by a grid, created either through the use of expressed formwork joints or, in the case of the house in Azmoos (2000), by a paint treatment. Whenever the architect employs such an ordering device, however, he invariably avoids subjugating the location of window and door openings to it. The aim is something more complex than either a doggedly ordered architecture or one of entirely free composition. The structure is there as a measure against which a series of precisely gauged syncopations can be read.
In the play of Synthes’ metronomically distributed colonnade and the more sinuous facade that extends behind it, we find that sensibility brought to bear on a building of heroic scale. The result is something fantastically strange and potent — an architecture that seeks to reconcile the mythic concerns of classicism with the much more life-like preoccupations that guided the development of the modern movement. I can think of few buildings realised in my lifetime that present quite such a clear and radical vision at every scale of operation, from the way materials are assembled, to the way a community is organised, and ultimately to the way that a city is shaped. Its lessons may prove slow to digest, but the Synthes headquarters deserves to be recognised as one of the most progressive works of architecture of its era.
Architect Märkli Architekt
Structural engineering Jauslin & Stebler, Basel